Friday, August 14, 2009

Who is Steve Smith?

The Anchorage Daily News had a story last week about the police chief stepping down.
Heun will remain in his current position until Aug. 15 while city officials develop a transition plan, according to a statement issued by Sullivan's office. Deputy chief Steve Smith will take over the responsibilities while a seven-person search committee, also announced Monday, looks for a Heun replacement.
While his first name is very cool, Smith is not a name that stands out particularly and there isn't much in that article about Steve Smith, who is scheduled to become Anchorage's Acting Police Chief.

So, let me fill in a little bit. Steve Smith was one of my students. NOTE: I don't reveal information I have gotten through teacher/student relationships without the student's voluntary permission. I told Steve I wanted to write a post about the new acting chief because most people know little about him. Let's say Steve was not enthusiastic, but he did imply that if I posted about him he wouldn't sue me. I didn't tell him what I was going to write and I'm not showing it to him before I post it. But he does know I have a pretty good opinion of him.

That said, Steve's stepping into the police chief position fulfills a prophecy I made after the first class he took with me. It just seemed that he was the perfect set of skills and abilities to be a first rate police chief and I've told him on a couple of occasions that I thought one day, if we (the people of Anchorage) were lucky, he'd be our police chief. Tomorrow that prophecy, at least in Acting capacity, comes true. (The article didn't say when Steve becomes chief, but if Heun steps down on the 15th, it would seem the new chief would have to take over the same day.)

Steve Smith appears at first as a little quiet, maybe shy even, with an 'aw shucks' manner. He's boy scout polite. But it quickly became clear in class that this was one helluva smart guy. His papers - written in clear, precise, flawless English, were to the point, and displayed an insight into the theoretical models that few other students had. And when he spoke, it was with the authority of someone who knew what he was talking about. He understood the most complex readings and how to apply them to real life. But despite his intellectual advantage over almost every other student, he was modest in his manner, and helped his classmates in a way that never betrayed even a hint that they were anything less than his equal.

There are people who have this calm, polite exterior who scare me. I get the feeling that there is some ticking time bomb about to explode. But Steve is the real thing. Not only is he incredibly smart and analytical, but he also had the skills to be head of the sharpshooter squad (I'm pretty sure he was the head) and he did quite a bit of training (as a trainer) both in Alaska and at the national level.

Steve really understands the ideal of the public servant - to be non-partisan, to be fair, and to make decisions based on the law and clear headed analysis of the facts. And an understanding that people are human. If he stopped me for speeding, I know he wouldn't treat me different from anyone else, even though I had been his professor. And I know that whomever he stops for anything, will be treated with a respect that all human beings deserve. He's comfortable with himself and so he doesn't have a need to treat others poorly.

I'm not sure, but I suspect that within the police department his combination of smarts, lack of political ambition or personal pretensions, plus his respectful treatment of others, give him pretty strong credibility with most of the force.

He did retire once from the force and took a job with Corrections for a couple of years before coming back into the Anchorage Police Department. I think that experience gives him a little extra perspective on how things work in APD and insight into the State Corrections system.

People who know me well - ask any former student - know that I don't give praise like this easily or often. And regular readers of this blog know that I rarely take a strong stand on anything, since I know that things are often not what they seem. (We saw Up last night and I was impressed with the main character's realization that his hero wasn't such a nice guy after all. A good thing for everyone to remember. At the very least, even the best have flaws.) But Steve was one of the best students I've seen in 30 years of teaching graduate students. He'll make as a good a police chief as we can get.

I realize that any new mayor wants the heads of his department to be people he can trust. He can trust Steve to be a totally straight shooter. His agenda is doing his job well, making Anchorage as safe as possible. He isn't a yes-man who will tell you what you want to hear. He'll tell you if he thinks it's a bad idea. He'll be diplomatic and he wouldn't publicly say anything negative, but he will tell you what he really thinks, and he thinks better than most people in Anchorage.

If I were mayor, I'd have no hesitation making Steve the permanent police chief. But I understand the new mayor needs get comfortable with his department heads. Mr. Mayor, I'd encourage you spend some quality time with Steve and talk to other police officers so you can see what I've seen. Talk to some of the people at national level organizations who have seen Steve's work.

On the other hand, this may not be the best time to be Chief. The budget is down and things will be tight. And Steve Smith has other options. I think he'd be a wonderful doctoral student somewhere and eventually a great professor. He already teaches as an adjunct faculty member at UAA and the students I've talked to have nothing but high praise. So, I'm writing this not so much for Steve's sake, but for Anchorage's sake.

National searches, in concept, are a good thing. Police chief is a high level position. There are advantages to bringing in someone from Outside. We'd have a larger pool of potentially good applicants. We might get new ideas and someone who isn't part of some local faction. We'll get someone with connections to the larger world of policing. But such searches can be pricey and the mayor needs to find millions of dollars as it is. Whoever comes in from Outside will need some time to adjust to and learn about Anchorage.

And I'm sure the mayor knows well what happened back in the early 80's when his father had a national search for the Police Chief position. There were maybe eight or ten finalists and both newspapers (we had two back then) wanted to see their resumes, but the Municipality deemed that part of the confidential personnel record as I recall. The Anchorage Daily News, I believe, filed a public records request to see the information. Well, a chief was hired from Outside, was up here for a look around, and Mayor George Sullivan was at the Seattle (I think) airport on his way to the Republican Presidential Convention - most likely this was 1980 - when he got the call to come back to Anchorage.

An Anchorage Times reporter (again, I think I've got the papers straight) had called around and found out that our new police chief had been let go from his prior position for sexual harassment. The public records request went all the way to the Alaska Supreme Court, which eventually ruled in favor of the newspaper. The police chief job, the Court ruled, was a high enough level public policy job that the public should have information about the finalists. (Yes, that police chief withdrew and we got someone else.)

Now, if the mayor wants a 'yes-man' (or woman) who will do whatever the mayor wants done, even if it's illegal, unethical, or not likely to work, then Steve Smith is not the right candidate. But for a very smart, very savvy, very technically competent police chief who is the epitome of the ethical public servant and has great interpersonal skills, then I doubt we'll get a better fit for the job of Anchorage Police Chief.


  1. In Hungary expectations towards people has increased. By now it is compulsory to teach at least 1 foreign language and take final exam of it at high school. However in case of my peers flawless Hungarian and an average knowledge of German (or English) to be able to hold a normal conversation in German (or in English). I put English in brackets because according to the last measures Hungary is the only European country (except Germany and Lichteinstein where German is the official language) where there are more German speakers than English. The article was a bit ironic because it is not the Western European pattern and nowadays it is fashionable to copy the west. I hope it ends soon.

    However I am not sure whether a police chief nneds to be multilingual but I think in Hungary every police officer needs at least one intermediate language exam of a foreign language because like 5% of the total population is not Hungarian speaking. Most of them are from the 13 accepted minorities listed by the Hungarian constitution (Germans, Slovaks, Ukranians, Romanians, Serbians, Slovenes, Gypsies, Vends - Croatians, Poles, Armenians, Bulgarians, Albanians, after the - there are the minorities I am not sure about).

    Probably Native American tribes may have some collective rights as well as Russians.

    Finally, I just need to wish him good luck to keep law and order. I think Otto von Bismark (chancellor of Germany bezween 1871-1888 as far as I remember) gave a nice lesson to the future with his "blood and iron speech".

    The position of Prussia in Germany will not be determined by its liberalism but by its power ... Prussia must concentrate its strength and hold it for the favourable moment, which has already come and gone several times. Since the treaties of Vienna, our frontiers have been ill-designed for a healthy body politic. Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided - that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 - but by iron and blood.

    For me this speech tells that sometimes you have to act instead of talking.

    In his time and in his case it meant that he must have been fighting with other nations.

  2. I watched a fight break out on the Metro in Paris a few weeks ago (where I was a passenger). Train agents showed up pretty quickly.

    They talked the five antagonists down, separated them and then signaled for the train to move on. All without arrests or batons. If your former student understands this use of implicit power, good.

    I've run into too many in the protective forces who resort too quickly to 'iron and blood' -- where policing becomes reaction to an action. It takes a remarkable human to see the person while doing such work. I hope your former student is one of these remarkable human beings. All the rest can sort itself.


Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.